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Potato Farm in Hastings Florida

Hastings - Potato Capitol of Florida

In 1890, Thomas Horace Hastings, who was a cousin of Henry M. Flagler, established a 1569-acre plantation which he called Prairie Garden on a spot about 18 miles west of St. Augustine. Its function was to grow winter vegetables for the tables of the fine hotels which his distinguished relative had built in the Ancient City.

In those days, the area was mostly wilderness except for a small settlement to the southwest, known as Merryfield. Naturally Mr. Hastings needed a railway station at his place, and Merryfield had one, but since the inhabitants wanted to keep it where it was, some action had to be taken. The story goes that a group of teenagers who may, or may not have been instigated by Mr. Hastings, moved the little building bodily during one dark night and put up a sign giving the stop its founder's name.

In its heyday, Prairie Gardens employed about 50 people and boasted many outbuildings and greenhouses, in addition to Mr. Hastings' home, a two-story building with a wide verandah on three sides. Ill health forced him to give up his farming venture in 1896 and he moved to St. Augustine to live, but the area by then had attracted other residents.

Although Hastings kept copious notes on his agricultural experiments, he never mentions the Irish potato which became the big money crop and gave the town of Hastings, which received its charter in 1909, the name of "Florida's Potato Capitol."

In 1917, the price of potatoes soared to astronomical heights and everybody got rich. Potato farmers bought cars, jewelry, furniture and new clothes and many St. Augustine stores, including the jewelry firm of Greenleaf and Crosby, opened branches in the little city to the west.

One suddenly wealthy farmer is said to have bought not one, but two pianos-one for each of his daughters. Of course, all seasons were not so prosperous and in some years there were disastrous freezes or the market was low.

Pioneers in the town's development were men like U. J. White, W. H. Erwin, Frank Nix and John T. Dismukes who introduced modern machinery and the use of up-to-date fertilization methods.

The post office opened in 1891, and in 1897 the first school went into operation. Its first teacher was Charles DuPont. Others who taught the youngsters as the educational establishment grew and expanded were Mrs. George Smith (Miss Ella), Miss Leone Rood, and Miss Ida Vause.

In 1917, the Dixie Highway was extended through Hastings and there was a parade and a motorcade with many cars coming from St. Augustine to celebrate the advent of the nine-foot wide brick highway. In that year St. Johns County boasted 63 miles of paved roads. Earlier, of course, the railroad was the best means of access, unless the traveller did not mind dirt roads, pot holes, and mud.

A picture in the files of the Historical Society shows one famous railroad passenger, the boxer Jess Willard, who stopped off to greet enthusiastic Hastings residents in 1915, when he was en route to Cuba for his celebrated ring battle with Jack Johnson. Another photograph shows a view of downtown Hastings in 1924 and clearly proves that during the height of the potato-digging season there was a parking problem, even in those peaceful days.

The First Baptist Church was organized in Hastings in 1910, and its first services were held in a tent, which was destroyed in a storm. After that, the congregation met in the Masonic Hall until enough money was available to build the first sanctuary at a cost of $5,000.

Today, Hastings is the packing and shipping center for a tri-county potato growing area which takes in Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns Counties.

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